Environment, Legislature

Renewable energy popular among voters, regardless of party. Duke Energy, not so much.

 

W hile Republican state lawmakers are crafting bills to stall or roll back renewable energy, that could cost them votes in the next election — even among hard-core conservatives. A new poll sponsored by Conservatives for Clean Energy reveals that more than 83 percent of North Carolina voters polled said they would be more likely to support a lawmaker or candidate who supports policies that encourage renewable energy options such as solar, wind, and swine and poultry waste.

Broken down by party, 79.1 percent of Republican voters and 73.5 percent of Trump supporters would support a clean-energy candidate.

Conservatives for Clean Energy hired Republican consulting firm Strategic Partners Solutions to conduct a telephone poll of 600 North Carolina voters on Feb. 26 and 27. The margin of error is plus or minus 4 percent. This is the third year for the poll.

There was also strong support for keeping — and even strengthening — the Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard. Currently, public utilities have to provide 6 percent of their energy from renewable sources; that benchmark is scheduled to rise to 10 percent in 2018 top out at 12.5 percent in 2021. House Bill 267 would flatline that threshold at 8 percent. Republicans Jimmy Dixon and John Bell are the primary sponsors of the bill.

Sixty percent of Democrats, 59 percent of unaffiliated voters, and 45 percent of Republicans would support doubling the renewable energy threshold to 25 percent.

But even skeptical voters warm to the REPS when they learn more about its benefits: 34,000 new solar jobs, and additional tax revenue for local government, the poll said. Nearly 56 percent agree that multi-acre solar projects positively impact communities.

E nergy efficiency legislation was also popular among respondents. Eighty-eight percent of all voters would more likely support a candidate who promoted energy efficiency legislation. That includes 82.7 percent of Trump voters.

Filed last week, Senate Bill 236 would encourage energy efficiency with several new programs to reduce the state’s electricity consumption by 40 to 60 percent over the next 10 years. First, the bill would require the state utilities commission to establish a tiered rate system. The proposed rate structure would charge high-use customers more than low-use. Low-income families could receive an exemption.

The bill would also create an Energy Efficiency Bank. The funds, which would be administered by a third-party, could be loaned to electricity customers to invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy projects. Customers would repay the loan through monthly installments on their electricity bill. Low-income households would receive grants, which would not need to be repaid.

The bill’s co-sponsors are Democrats Mike Woodard, Erika Smith-Ingram and Valerie Foushee.

Read more

Governor Roy Cooper, Legislature

Gov. Roy Cooper’s $23.4 billion budget: new programs, 5% raise for teachers next year

Gov. Roy Cooper released his first budget today. At $23.4 billion, more than half of that money would be spent on public education. (Photo: Lisa Sorg)

At one point in his press conference, Gov. Roy Cooper grabbed a copy of his 161-page budget booklet from a nearby table, and pointed to its cover for emphasis. “This is a balanced budget” he told a group of reporters, who had gathered at Durham Technical Community College for the announcement. “We did it without raising taxes or fees, cutting services or dipping into special funds.”

Released at 10:30 this morning, the $23.4 billion budget will require more analysis to learn what’s been nipped and tucked to achieve that goal. But Cooper’s first foray into a state budget as governor focuses on education, emblematic of his vision of propelling North Carolina into the top 10 educated states by 2025:

  • new programs for continuing education students and community colleges to increase the number of adults with a higher education degree from 38 percent to 55 percent;
  • an increase in the number of pre-K slots to eliminate the 4,700-child waiting list;
  • financial incentives for new schoolteachers in the form of a $10,000 student loan forgiveness in exchange for a 3–4 year commitment to teaching in North Carolina public schools;
  • salary hikes for all state employees, including a 5 percent bump for public school teachers in 2017-18 and another 5 percent in 2018-2019

Including one-time expenditures, the total amount is a 5.1 percent increase over 2016-17, hammered out by the legislature and former Gov. Pat McCrory. Without those non-recurring funds, the budget is 3 percent higher than the previous one.

Cooper is counting on Medicaid expansion to help offset state health care costs in a “cost-neutral manner.” The governor is counting on hospitals to  cover the state’s portion, which he said would ultimately save those institutions money it would otherwise spend on providing care for the uninsured.

Another 624,000 North Carolinians would be covered under Medicaid if it were expanded, Cooper said.

North Carolina’s rural and underserved areas would also receive an infusion of funds. About $30 million is included for the redevelopment of “NC Ready” sites. Those are tracts of 50 to 200 acres that could be repurposed for economic development. To attract good-paying manufacturing jobs, Cooper proposes spending $20 million to build infrastructure for new factories.

Although North Carolina’s unemployment rate was 4.9 percent in December, 59 of 100 counties reported rates higher than the statewide average. Eastern North Carolina is particularly hard-hit, with Hyde County at 11.6 percent of eligible adults out of work and Tyrrell County at 10.3 percent.

Low wages, a lack of education and opportunity — in a word, despair — has led to a sharp increase in opioid deaths nationwide, and North Carolina is no exception. In 2015, 735 deaths were attributed to prescription opioid overdoses, more than the number of caused by heroin and cocaine, combined. In 1999, the state reported fewer than 100 such deaths. To combat the state’s problem with opioid abuse, Cooper has requested $12 million next year.

The Department of Environmental Quality would also receive a boost, adding four full-time positions in water resources permitting staff and another four full-time jobs in dam safety. “DEQ has been decimated for the last four years,” Cooper said. “We need to make sure we have the people who can do the job.”

There is also $100 million allocated for hurricane and disaster relief reserve.

We are catching up. We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority. Click To Tweet

Other notable, although easily overlooked line items include $1 million to help keep the state’s military bases open when the next round of closures begins in 2018. Those bases, including Camp Lejeune, Seymour Air Force Base, Pope Field, Cherry Point and Fort Bragg, are key to the economy in their communities.

As part of the “Raise the Age” campaign — it would prohibit 16- and 17- year olds from being tried as adults, regardless of the severity of the crime — Cooper said another juvenile center would need to be built. That could raise concerns among juvenile justice advocates who want to keep these kids out of institutions. Nonetheless, he is requesting $1 million the first fiscal year and $5 million in the second to accommodate those teens into the juvenile justice system.

The 895,000 people in North Carolina without access to high-speed internet could be helped by a $15 million broadband grant program. It would help deliver what’s known as “last mile” and “middle mile” high-speed internet to rural areas, particularly in the mountains. Another $5 million would be used to assess the state’s broadband needs.

The House and Senate are meeting tomorrow at 8:30 a.m. to discuss the governor’s budget before each chamber draws up its own version. (They will meet in Room 643 of the Legislative Office Building, so a live audio stream will be available.) Republican State Sen. Pro Tempore Phil Berger already disapproves. He tweeted that Cooper’s budget contains “reckless spending.”

“We are catching up,” Cooper countered. “We can do that without raising taxes but we have to make education a priority.”

 

Legislature, News

Bipartisan group of lawmakers introduce redistricting reform bill to end gerrymandering

Rep. Chuck McGrady

Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson) leads a press conference Tuesday about redistricting reform. (Photo by Melissa Boughton)

Lawmakers have taken the first step toward ending gerrymandering — introducing a bill that would take the politics out of redistricting.

It’s not an unprecedented bill and there’s no guarantee it will actually make it to committee, but lawmakers present at a press conference Tuesday showed a commitment to getting it passed.

“When we were in the minority, this bill was something that Republicans generally rallied around and what I’d say to that is, if it was the right thing then, it is still the right thing now,” said Rep. Chuck McGrady (R-Henderson). “We have to serve the people of North Carolina and we have to make sure they have full confidence in the integrity and fairness of our elections.”

House Bill 200 is almost identical to 2011’s HB824. Instead of lawmakers drawing their own districts for partisan advantage, a nonpartisan legislative staff would create congressional and legislative maps without political consideration.

McGrady is sponsoring the bill, along with Representatives Jonathan Jordan (R-Ashe, Watauga), Jon Hardister (R-Guilford) and Sarah Stevens (R-Surry, Wilkes). There are Democrats co-sponsoring the bill.

Rep. Grier Martin (D-Wake) said the bill is not a cure for all the problems of redistricting, but rather, “a wonderful treatment to a bipartisan problem from which our democracy suffers.”

“Redistricting is one of the most inherently partisan activities that we do as a body. There will always be partisanship in it,” Martin said. “But this bill would put a layer of insulation between the partisan hacks, like all of us up here, and the drawing of our districts. Regardless of which party is in charge, I think that’s the best way forward.”

Common Cause North Carolina Executive Director Bob Phillips was at the press conference. He said the real push for the organization and legislators will be to get legislative leadership to allow the bill to be heard.

So far, legislative leaders haven’t been receptive to redistricting reform but they have supported it in the past, Phillips said.

Wednesday is an official redistricting reform lobbying day. There will be a rally at 1 p.m. at Bicentennial Plaza to end gerrymandering.

Keep an eye on NC Policy Watch Thursday afternoon for a more in depth story about redistricting reform and coverage of Wednesday’s rally.

Environment, Legislature

Back from the dead: Environmental bills weaken stream protections, billboard regulations

Outdoor advertisers “have the right to be clearly viewed, says House Bill 173.
(Photo: rllayman on Flickr)

Like Chucky the doll, regulatory reform legislation will not die. Although  a regulatory reform bill succumbed to political disagreements in the final throes of last year’s session, a new(ish) measure, Senate Bill 131, was filed today.

It mixes portions of last year’s lemon with another failed enviro bill from 2016: laying the groundwork to pull the plug on TV and computer recycling, exempting landscaping material from stormwater management requirements (because runoff from mulch and gravel is harmless?) and weakening stream protections.

Of course, the bill doesn’t say “weaken,” but rather “amend.” Regardless, Reg Reform 2.0 would direct the Environmental Management Commission to change its rules so that if development damages or destroys as much as 300 linear feet (equivalent to the length of a football field) of stream bed, well, no problem. The developer wouldn’t have to mitigate that loss by say, improving the same distance in another stream bed.

Near the coast, the threshold is 150 feet. In that part of the state, the law would  essentially allow someone to ruin twice as much stream bed without having to compensate for that loss.

Missing thus far: Any mention of wind farms.

Primary sponsors: Republican Sens. Andy Wells (Alexander, Catawba); Bill Cook (eight coastal counties); and Norman Sanderson (Carteret, Craven, Pamlico).

House Bill 173, which deals with billboard laws, has been revived with much of the same language as the version from last year (and the year before, and the year before).. The bad news: Billboard companies could apply for a vegetation removal permit that would allow them to cut down trees that obscure the view of their signs. (Because it’s so easy to miss the JR Discount Outlet along I-85? Because attending the Dixie Gun & Knife Show is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity? ) The outdoor advertiser, the bill states, has the “right to be clearly viewed.”

The good news: Unlike last year, digital billboards, those retina-burning broadsides scattered along the interstates, are absent from the bill — so far.

Primary sponsors: Eastern North Carolina House Republicans John Bell (Craven, Greene, Lenoir and Wayne); Phil Shepard (Onslow) and Pat McElraft (Carteret, Jones); and Democrat Michael Wray (Halifax, Northampton).

More good news: Large cities in North Carolina would receive extra environmental TLC under House Bill 175. It directs DEQ to “emphasize the protection of at-risk urban communities from environmental degradation” of air and water quality.

The measure proposes that DEQ prioritize stream restoration and study air pollution in urban empowerment zones. Those are defined as areas with higher-than-average unemployment and low median household incomes, as designated by city councils. Only cities with populations of at least 275,000 would be within the purview of the bill: Charlotte, Raleigh and Greensboro.

DEQ could also recommend local ordinances or state legislation to address air pollution, particularly from manufacturing and quarry operations.

Primary sponsors: Democratic Reps. Kelly Alexander (Mecklenburg) and Pricey Harrison (Guilford).

Environment, Legislature

Much ado about nothing: DEQ Sec’y Michael Regan has potential conflicts of interest; so did John Skvarla

Before Republican lawmakers get lathered up over State Ethics Commission findings that Michael Regan, nominee for NC DEQ Secretary has “potential for a conflict of interest,” they should re-read history.  The commission made the same findings in 2013 for former NC DEQ Secretary John Skvarla, nominated by Gov. Pat McCrory.

ABC11 reported the findings about Regan today.

Unlike Skvarla, though, Regan faces confirmation by the state senate on March 8.

High-ranking state officials, cabinet appointees, many state board members are legally required to file Statements of Economic Interest with the commission. Considering there are dozens of state boards whose members are subject to ethics rules, it is not unusual for the State Ethics Commission to find potential conflicts of interest in appointees’ disclosures.

The commission cited Regan’s previous job with the Environmental Defense Fund and his environmental consulting business as potential, but not actual conflicts.

“Because of these associations, Mr. Regan should exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should issues or entities related to his consulting practice, or the Environmental Defense Fund, come before Department for official action or otherwise seek to conduct business with the Department.”

The potential conflicts do not “prohibit service” with DEQ, the letter said.

The commission noted that Skvarla had been the CEO of Restoration Systems, LLC, a stream and wetland restoration firm. That company also owned financial interests in several mitigation companies that had business dealings with DEQ, the 2013 letter said.  Skvarla replied that he would sell  his ownership interest or place it in a blind trust.

As with Regan, the commission advised Skvarla to “exercise appropriate caution in the performance of his public duties should any entity in which he has a financial interest come before the department for official action.” In those cases, the commission said Skvarla and Regan should recuse themselves.